Kelly Norris: 4 Ways We’re Leaving Growth Opportunities On The Table

Kelly Norris: 4 Ways We’re Leaving Growth Opportunities On The Table

new-cropsAs much as I want to invoke word play between State of the Greenhouse Industry and State of the Union, I think we’re all sick of politics at this point. This one’s all about the plants, mostly. As political prognostication goes, officeholders love to give incomplete grades when asked to self-evaluate their work. I tried to think of a grade I would give the industry today, maybe even a percentage. I’m stuck. Are we doing good enough, as in a youngster who tries and fails, only to succeed halfheartedly with encouragement?

I don’t think we’re doing stellar. (Who would read a column that did nothing but pat ourselves on the back anyway?) Yet, I don’t think we’re doing awful — horticulture is a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar agribusiness. We form the cultural fabric of our communities, help to feed the planet, enhance and define new infrastructure in progressive development, enable conservation and ecological restoration, and bring joy to people in a world that needs it more than ever.


I’m no headmaster with a ruler up his sleeve, but I think we’re coming up short on a few accounts and missing opportunities to grow.

In full disclosure, the Greenhouse Grower editorial team gave me the chance to pore over some of the raw data from its 2017 State of the Industry survey as I wrote this column. Deviating from my normal formula, I pulled quotes from the anonymous responses in the survey and riffed. This is what percolated.

Labor — Is Unsurprisingly A Big Deal

I’m not an expert on these issues, and I don’t have a lot to say about them. From an analytical perspective, the frequency of this issue throughout the sample set suggests something Maslowian about our industry today. If we can’t work to solve the fundamentals of labor quality and supply, the higher-order issues are going to earn less attention.

New product development falls into this category. A greenhouse grower will reasonably be concerned with who’s doing the handwork and keeping the fires burning before worrying about the nuances of new varieties as they affect the supply chain and the end consumer. Constraints like these limit the success of new ideas and products if the benefits for adopting them aren’t obvious.

“It Is Hard To Predict What The Retail Market Will Want.”

Yes, it is. This statement summarizes the frustration that so many business owners feel. The Retail Public is a sometimes foggy, fathomless morass of perception and best guesses that walks into the store every Saturday in May. Who are they? As an industry, we’ve struggled to embrace post-demographic consumerism. Our consumers just aren’t who we thought they were, and we’re missing rings because of it.

More troubling is that we continue to rebrand a now dated notion of the 20th century homemaker as our prototypical consumer instead of realizing that Millennial consumers don’t approach the marketplace with that perspective. The why has more purpose, the how is more material. Does the overall flavor of new plants in the market reflect this today?

Relating to our consumers has been a theme throughout and following the Recession. Everything has changed. We need more data, yes. But we should connect with people how and where they want. Never forget, too, that expertise has appeal in a world where information, though democratically available, is becoming harder and harder to find. The retail market is looking to know and grow — be their expert.

“As A Seller, The More I Can Tell My Public, The Better.”

Storytelling matters because it’s fundamental to human communication. “Full sun, well-drained soil, 6 to 8 inches tall, annual” doesn’t mean anything. It’s a string of 55 characters including spaces. Neurological research has shown that facts like those in that string engage only 25% of the areas of our brain as stories do. Stories appeal to our emotions and the experience of everyday life. Facts simply get stored in our brains, perhaps never to be retrieved and reconstructed as memories.

Stories also impact our value perceptions — in short, when a story means something, we’re often more inclined to get behind its message or product. (Read more at about how a fascinating literary experiment turned ordinary thrift store finds into perceived extraordinary items through good storytelling).

“We Are Always Looking At New Crops To Grow. It Helps Us To Stay On The Leading Edge Of Innovation And Avoid Stagnation.”

This respondent hits it on the head.

Cartoonist Saul Steinberg once said, “The life of the creative man is led, directed, and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.”

I can’t help but think that we’ve done a fine job of boring our customers (and maybe ourselves) into submission or apathy. Horticulture today might be what the 1950s was for food — a pre-dawn, dark age that trades subsistence over revelry, ordinary instead of extraordinary. We need to realize that the motivations people bring to the table at a restaurant are the same emotional triggers we should appeal to when talking about plants, gardens, and the landscape. Post-World War II America didn’t celebrate food; it just ate it. Today, we’re in a similar place — we’re just selling plants. What will it look like when we do more than that?

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Liz King says:

I’m not a professional grower, but a consumer and active gardener growing mostly flowers. I read the stories here as a professional graphic designer trying to learn how to help professional grower clients. I think when we do something professionally, it can be hard to step back and put ourselves in our customers shoes as we get so close to the daily business.

As a consumer, I do some research about plants I’d like to try on the internet and that does guide some of my more planned purchases. But truthfully, many of my purchases are impulsive at the place of purchase, whether online or in the nursery (mainly nursery). My impulsiveness is driven first by something beautiful and secondly something I haven’t grown before. It doesn’t have to be a cutting-edge introduction, but I like to grow things I haven’t tried before. I love the tried-and true plants too and I think growers often move off from these varieties in favor of the new only to discard some of the best plant varieties. I’ve had some amazing performers in my garden and when I go back to get more, I can’t find the variety anymore—it seems the industry has moved on to some new flavor that often doesn’t live up to my expectations. I do value plant tags with clear requirements. If you don’t do that, you set people up to fail. I often won’t buy a perennial plant if it doesn’t have the zonal information on it. Experience has proven it’s a wasted investment if it won’t have a reasonable chance of surviving to the next year. I think plant tags need a great deal of improvement and are often looked at as something far down the list of importance. I think another that the place you can build excitement is with inspirational information and great photos of the plants on websites, blogs, Pinterest, Instagram, etc—that’s a great place to build a story. Plant tags are pretty small to provide more than good growing information and an accurate photo (which is highly important in my opinion), but I think well-designed POP displays could build excitement and inspire a purchase. I think most gardeners drool over great photos showing inspiring and achievable plant combinations with similar growing conditions (why I subscribe to garden magazines). Don’t just think about making a quick purchase—think about how this purchase will affect future purchases. Set people up for growing success and they will come back to you for more.

One parting thought—to sell plants, think about why people grow in the first place. The reasons I grow: creating beauty and an oasis from a busy life that I enjoy, creating a place for “wildlife” (birds, bees, frogs/toads, etc) to thrive (which I also very much enjoy), creativity in a different medium, challenge and reward of making something grow and thrive with your hard work, an outlet for enjoyable exercise, making the world a better place, and on and on it goes. Help people see the rewards.